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Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

“The Science of Addiction”

The cover story in Timemagazine of July 16, 2007 had the above title. The article pointed out the serious problems of addiction in society. It was not written from any sort of spiritual perspective. The article did, however, point out various scientific discoveries about addictions that shed light on difficulties children of God also face in their pilgrimages. Not only that, but these scientific discoveries raise various questions for the Christian. There is the possibility of cures discovered—pills or surgeries that may help to overcome such addictions. The article lists some of the addictions that can “hook” the individual: alcohol, drugs, tobacco, caffeine, food, gambling, shopping, sex, and the Internet.

I quote a few segments of the article. The first quote relates to alcohol abuse—drunkenness (of which the author spoke from personal experience).

Back when I stopped drinking, such an experiment would have been unimaginable. [The writer refers to a brain scan called functional magnetic-resonance imager (fMRI). GVB] At the time, medical establishment had come to accept the idea that alcoholism was a disease rather than a moral failing; the American Medical Association (AMA) had said so in 1950. But while it had all the hallmarks of other diseases, including specific symptoms and a predictable course, leading to disability or even death, alcoholism was different. Its physical basis was a complete mystery—and since nobody forced alcoholics to drink, it was still seen, no matter what the AMA said, as somehow voluntary. Treatment consisted mostly of talk therapy, maybe some vitamins and usually a strong recommendation to join Alcoholics Anonymous. Although it’s a totally nonprofessional organization, founded in 1935 by an ex-drunk and an active drinker, AA has managed to get millions of people off the bottle, using group support and a program of accumulated folk wisdom.

While AA is astonishingly effective for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone; studies suggest it succeeds about 20% of the time, and other forms of treatment, including various types of behavioral therapy, do no better. The rate is much the same with drug addiction, which experts see as the same disorder triggered by a different chemical. “The sad part is that if you look at where addiction treatment was 10 years ago, it hasn’t gotten much better,” says Dr. Martin Paulus, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego. “You have a better chance to do well after many types of cancer than you have of recovering from methamphetamine dependence.”

That could all be about to change. During those same 10 years, researchers have made extraordinary progress in understanding the physical basis of addiction. They know now, for example, that 20% success rate can shoot up to 40% if treatment is ongoing (very much the AA model, which is most effective when members continue to attend meetings long after their last drink). Armed with an array of increasingly sophisticated technology, including fMRIS and PET scans, investigators have begun to figure out exactly what goes wrong in the brain of an addict—which neurotransmitting chemicals are out of balance and what regions of the brain are affected. They are developing a more detailed understanding of how deeply and completely addiction can affect the brain, by hijacking memory-making processes and by exploiting emotions. Using that knowledge, they’ve begun to design new drugs that are showing promise in cutting off the craving that drives an addict irresistibly toward relapse—the greatest risk facing even the most dedicated abstainer.

The author presents studies that appear to show how specific parts of the brain are involved in cases of addiction. He presents pictures of the brain of the addict showing how parts of the brain become intensely active when the addict indulges in his particular addiction. He presents, too, definitions of the term “addiction” given by others.

“Addictions,” says Joseph Frascella, director of the division of clinical neuroscience at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “are repetitive behaviors in the face of negative consequences, the desire to continue something you know is bad for you.” [And:] “Addiction has a specific definition: you are unable to stop when you want to, despite [being] aware of the adverse consequences. It permeates your life; you spend more and more time satisfying [your craving].” —Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, NIDA

The writer summarizes the results of scientific studies that indicate the terribleness of addictions. He himself had been a drunkard. He had undergone tests to show if he might be inclined to revert to his alcoholic addiction. He concludes:

Nevertheless, says Volkow, “addiction is a medical condition. We have to recognize that medications can reverse the pathology of the disease. We have to force ourselves to think about a cure because if we don’t, it will never happen.” Still, she is quick to admit that just contemplating new ideas doesn’t make them so. The brain functions that addiction commandeers may simply be so complex that sufferers, as 12-step recovery programs have emphasized for decades, never lose their vulnerability to their drug of choice, no matter how healthy their brains might eventually look.

I’m probably a case in point. My brain barely lit up in response to the smell of beer inside the fMRI at McLean. “This is actually valuable information for you as an individual,” said Scott Lukas, director of the hospital’s behavioral psychopharmacology research laboratory and a professor at Harvard Medical School who ran the tests. “It means that your brain’s sensitivity to beer cues as long passed.”

That’s in keeping with my real-world experience; if someone has a beer at dinner, I don’t feel a compulsion to leap across the table and grab it or even to order one for myself. Does that mean I’m cured? Maybe. But it may also mean simply that it would take a much stronger trigger for me to fall prey to addiction again—like, for example, downing a glass of beer. But the last thing I intend to do is to put it to the test. I’ve seen too many others try it—with horrifying results.

The writer makes a case for the physical causes of addiction. It has also been pointed out that one’s genetic makeup may well incline an individual to one or another of these addictions. Or again, addictions may be caused by environmental conditions beyond one’s control.

Therefore, so many conclude, my addiction is not my fault. I was born this way. How can it be sin— if I have no control over the “causes” of the addiction? Homosexuals have convinced many that because they were “born this way,” they have rights to conjugal relationships. It can’t be “sin” if they were “born this way.” The adulterer, the drunkard, the smoker, the gambler might all make similar claims.

I can believe that genes and/ or environment incline some to certain addictions (even as cancer may be the result of one’s genetic makeup or environment). But is not all of this exactly the consequences of Adam’s first sin? God said that in the day Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, he would die. That death was not simply the cessation of his physical life some 900 years later, but his whole being was affected by God’s sentence. He was separated from the face and favor of God. Death reigned in his members. One can understand that he became susceptible to all manner of diseases. His very genetic makeup was affected. And Adam passed this on to his children— part of “original pollution.” That was the horror of the original sentence of death passed on in the generations. Even as I had no control over my conception or birth, even so I have no control over the genetic code that determines my height, color of eyes or skin, or whether I am inclined to one or another of the “addictions.”

Two truths must be forcefully emphasized. First, none can blame God or accuse Him of “making me this way,” thus seeking to excuse his sin and escape condemnation. Secondly, the Christian understands that the fight is so great and the temptations so many, that he could never deliver himself from this death. It is only in Christ that there is deliverance. The regenerated, called, and converted sinner knows this.

The apostle Paul himself, in Holy Scripture, dealt with that argument. In treating the subject of election and reprobation inRomans 9, Paul quotes the objector, “Thou wilt say then unto me, why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?”

The Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 3 and 4, states: “Q8. Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? A. Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Q9. Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law that which he cannot perform? A. Not at all; for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.” God rightly requires obedience— and every individual is held accountable before God for his actions.

One is reminded forcefully of the terrible control sin has on a person. We confess that we have but a small beginning of new obedience. When another succumbs to these wiles of the devil, we can quickly tell such a one, “Just stop committing that sin!” But addictions represent sins that seem at times to have unbreakable control over us. One can continue to engage in them while knowing it to be hurtful to self, to family, and others about him. The cry of that great apostle Paul resounds within one’s soul, “The good that I would I do not; the evil that I would not, that do I” (Rom. 7). Paul concludes with the anguished cry: “O wretched man that I am; who shall deliver me from the bondage of this death?” His answer, and the only proper solution: “I thank God, (it is) through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Unbelievers indeed can sometimes find medications and rehab houses that may help them to fight certain addictions. But that does not change hearts. One remains under condemnation, though he might escape the clutches of certain addictions.

The child of God knows that it is indeed, after all, a “heart problem.” He agrees with Paul’s anguished cry. His only hope of deliverance is the cross of Christ. He must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit. He looks to the Spirit to direct him and strengthen him in this great struggle against sin in his life. In this horrific struggle, Scripture instructs one to wear the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18). He is also called to use available means that God directs to effect recovery. There is a lifelong struggle against sins of every sort. Indeed, we have but a “small beginning of new obedience.” And fellow saints pray for each other in this great battle. The victory is already ours in Christ. We are called to forsake every way of sin. We look for final deliverance when we are taken to glory.

Harry—the Atheist

The last of the seven-volume series about Harry Potter is finally off the press. Its author, Joanne K. Rowling, already is the owner of three fancy houses and has more money than the Queen of England (Timemagazine, July 23, 2007) as a result of the books (and movies based on them). It is safe to say, I believe, that many also in our churches have been avidly reading these books and were looking forward to the final volume, Deathly Hallows. How are we to evaluate these books? How do others evaluate them? For your consideration I present the following quote from the above issue of Time (hardly a conservative and surely not a religious magazine), by Lev Grossman:

Rowling’s work is so familiar that we’ve forgotten how radical it really is. Look at her literary forebears. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fused his ardent Catholicism with a deep, nostalgic love for the unspoiled English landscape. C.S. Lewis was a devout Anglican whose Chronicles of Narnia forms an extended argument for Christian faith. Now look at Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.

When the end comes, where will it leave Harry? He’ll face tougher choices than his fantasy ancestors did. Frodo was last seen skipping town with the elves. Lewis sent the Pevensie kids to the paradise of Aslan’s Land. It’s unlikely that such a comfortable retirement awaits Harry in the Deathly Hallows.

That’s a sobering evaluation. What do you think of the evaluation and its accuracy?